Drought Hanging Tough: Good Planning Still Helps

Fodder for Thought

As tough as it is to accomplish, a drought plan can help during and after a drought.

Published on: January 24, 2013

Take a look at the most recent National Drought Summary from the U.S. Drought Monitor or the National Weather Service’s U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for 2013 and you will soon realize that continuing drought is highly likely for a majority of America’s heartland.

In many areas this could be the second or, even worse, third or more years of on-going drought for many beef producers. It is these consecutive years of ongoing drought where management decisions are the most vital.

In ranching there are three resources producers must manage – livestock, money, and grass. “Ranchers can’t go broke with too much grass or money, but they sure can have too many livestock,” Bud Williams used to say. “Most ranchers love their cattle and hate their grass … it should be the opposite.”

In times of plenty, ranchers can afford to run more livestock. However, in dry times keeping less livestock ultimately means more money available for recapitalizing into livestock when conditions improve.

To combat drought, a drought plan is a necessity. In addition producers should recognize that, as Ranching for Profit's Dave Pratt explains, drought planning most always involves some degree of destocking.

Ideally, ranchers should seek to have their lands come out of the drought in condition as good as when it began. Planning and preparation can help to make this possible.

The preparation process includes several key components:

  • good grazing management
  • a grazing budget to determine appropriate stocking rates
  • tracking and recording of precipitation
  • determination of critical rainfall dates

When implemented properly these actions will help producers to minimize risk, and when the time comes, if destocking decisions do arise, they will be in a better position to make them.

Key factors to consider when making grazing management decisions during drought periods include length of rest period for forage plants, season of grazing use, year-end residual, and amount of precipitation. Producers can use tools such as a grazing index and a budget of forage resources to assist in this management.

A grazing budget will account for the forage resources necessary to sustain a livestock herd. With this working inventory in hand, a determination of pasture carrying capacity in years with near-average precipitation can be calculated.

Combined with managers' observations of current rangeland conditions and residual forage available, this information will be vital when decisions need to be made, such as destocking due to inadequate forage resources to meet feed demand.

Resources like a grazing calculator or budget spreadsheet can come in handy in this instance and are available through many university extension programs and private consulting agencies.

Tracking precipitation can be done via several avenues. Place rain gauges in strategic locations across your ranch and check them monthly. Rainfall amounts should be recorded and an annual ‘running’ total of rainfall kept. In addition, websites like SNOTEL provided through NRCS’s National Weather and Climate Center for mountainous regions and the Western Region Regional Climate Center for plains states can provide valuable precipitation information. Using rainfall data it will be possible for you to identify and record two to three critical rainfall dates that will serve as guidelines for making management decisions.

The aforementioned strategies are just a few of many steps producers can take to better prepare for drought. In the end, working smarter plus proper planning and preparation will guarantee the best possible outcome when drought conditions occur. Next week, I will go into more detail into how critical rain dates are determined and how to use these dates in drought planning.